Monday, 29 April 2019

The Third Frame
Journal of Defence Management, March 2009

Bharat Karnad, India’s Nuclear Policy, Pentagon Press, Westport (CT), 2008, pp. 221, ISBN: 978-0-275-99945-2, Rs. 795/-

In his Foreword, noted India watcher, Stephen Cohen, notes the ‘special role’ India will play in a globalised world. He recommends the book under review as ‘critical for understanding India’s evolution as a great power.’ This owes to the book seeking, in the author’s words, ‘to reveal the workings of India’s nuclear strategy and posture.’ The author has achieved his aim in ample measure in not only disseminating knowledge of the inner workings of the growing nuclear complex, but also analysing the same through his, by now patented, lens of nuclear maximalism.

Karnad keeps China in the cross-hairs contending that India needs a ‘consequential thermonuclear weapons inventory’ in order to play ‘nuclear hardball’ in case the strategic situation was ever to deteriorate. With respect to Pakistan, he is of the view that India is in a position to ‘overawe the Islamic extremists potentially presiding over a Taliban ruled nuclear Pakistan’ on account of Pakistan not being a ‘credible conventional or nuclear threat to India.’ He reveals how the concept of ‘credible minimum deterrence’ is evolving and being implemented with the views of the military brass increasingly shaping nuclear policy. He apprehends, through his interaction with the many retired military men he has interviewed for the book, that the ‘weak link in the deterrence chain’ is the ‘indecisiveness and lack of will of the Indian political leadership to take hard national security decisions’.

Having set out his world view, he dilates on the maturing of India’s nuclear and missile capabilities, perhaps for the first time anywhere in such detail. After covering the better known foundations of the capability in his second chapter, he deals with the little known ongoing developments in the third. His last chapter is on the implications of nuclearisation for Southern Asia with respect to Limited War and nuclear crises. His scathing approach to the Indo-US nuclear deal owes, to the ‘curb’ it places on Indian nuclear capability, contrary to what he sees as the US’ own strategic intent of wanting ‘India emerge as a credible countervailing presence to China in Asia’. 

That India is giving itself a variegated nuclear capability comes out distinctly in his description, bringing coherence to ongoing disparate developments with respect to missiles, acquisition of delivery systems and platforms and nuclear weapons. After initially being driven in their autonomous efforts by a need to best the challenge of a technology denial regime, the scientists are now, in Karnad’s description, working towards integrated goals informed by multiple organisations involved such as the Strategic Projects Group in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Strategic Forces Command. It is the eventual complexion of the outcome, brought about by emphasising ‘credible’ in ‘credible minimum deterrence’, that requires interrogation.

Karnad discerns a force of about 200 weapons, and a hundred in reserve, being delivered eventually by a strategic triad. This figure is subject to expansion as India emulates Chinese ‘Limited Deterrence’ conception for political and strategic reasons. This highlights the policy weight that the strategic enclave and the military combine have acquired. It has resulted in a shift from the original conception of ‘minimum deterrence’ in which the very possibility of inflicting ‘unacceptable damage’, reasonably defined, in return for nuclear ‘first use’ or ‘first strike’ serves as adequate deterrence. For this all that needs to be assured is that a finite number of weapon systems survive even a salvo of the order of a ‘first strike’. The military focus on assurance on the damage that can be inflicted in return is what drives up numbers and sophistication of the deterrent. The strategic enclave for institutional interests can be expected to prefer an expansive conception of the deterrent.

Karnad is right that political inattention has likely led up to such a pass. In his view, political pusillanimity is responsible for the creeping pace of the operationalisation of the deterrent. He brings out the military’s suspicion of political resolve on the manner of nuclear retaliation. The military’s position on early and reflexive retaliation is under grid, in Karnad’s assessment, by its felt need to forestall self-deterrence. Such a constraining of political options can also be seen in the Army’s adoption of the Cold Start doctrine in which mobilisation schedules likewise restrict space for political crisis management. This brings into question the extent political control over the nuclear complex, but not in the direction Karnad prefers.

A rethink of aspects bringing about self-deterrence is necessary. The more important one is to preserve the national space from further atomic impacts in case of a nuclear exchange. A government’s responsibility towards its citizens is to ensure damage limitation. This can best be brought about by terminating the exchange at its lowest levels possible. Even if, for instance, Pakistan were not to ‘survive the first retaliatory salvo’, ‘cease to exist’ and is ‘finished’, it would not rule out the risk of attacks by remnants of its strategic forces. It is not the absolute amount of damage, but the mere possibility of it that deters. This conception of existential deterrence that had one time informed India’s doctrine of minimal deterrence has been reflected on in Rajesh Rajagopalan’s Second Strike: Arguments of Nuclear War in South Asia (New Delhi: Penguin, 2005) and Rajesh M Basrur’s Minimum Deterrence and India’s Nuclear Security, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006). Karnad’s book helps revives the debate and if India is moving along the expansive lines approvingly described by Karnad, then liberal rationalists  should join the debate yet again.

Described by Cohen as ‘one of India’s leading strategic thinkers’, the book is a recommended read to reapprise developments in the nuclear field; best described in borrowing Karnad’s description of the earlier run up to nuclearisation, as nuclear operationalisation by ‘autopilot’. 

Combat Journal

Karnad, B., ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy: New Delhi, MacMillan, 2002; pp. 724, Rs. 795/-

Nuclear enthusiasts owe a debt to Karnad’s daughter for goading her father into finishing his first book. This book is certain to join the other two equally penetrative tomes by Perkovich and Tellis on India’s nuclear journey on the bookshelf of any discerning military professional. It is a book that must be read in conjunction with Vanaik and Bidwai’s South Asia on a Short Fuse. While Vanaik and Bidwai have delved into Gandhian and Nehruvian thought and India’s position on nuclear weapons since then to arrive at the conclusion that Pokhran II was a radical departure, Karnad seeks to establish that weaponisation was a logical corollary to Nehru’s policy of acquiring the nuclear deterrent. Contesting this widely held perception of Indian aversion to the Bomb helps Karnad forward his wider thesis that India requires to move beyond its current nuclear posture of gaining a ‘force in being’ (as termed by Tellis) to a tous azimuts capability to include a strategic triad, thermonuclear weapons and ICBMs. In this manner, Karnad believes India will be able to acquire the strategic space, international stature and military muscle considered necessary for a major player in realism inspired world politics.

The book begins with a survey of the Vedas to establish that violence to further state goals is envisaged as a permissible practice in these revered verses that serve as the roots of India’s civilisational ethos. His aim appears to be to bust the myth that India stands for abnegation and non-violence alone. In arguing the contrary, he avers to Arthashastra as evidence of past political practice, proving thereby that pursuit of national interest through the use of force has been a characteristic feature. He thereafter attempts to interpret Gandhi and Nehru in a light that Gandhians and Nehruvians may find debatable, if not subversive. Since his work is an advocacy of the maximalist nuclear posture for India, he requires tackling these aspects to undercut the arguments raised by votaries of renunciation or moderation who rely on these sources for sustenance of their position.

Thereafter the book relies on access to freshly declassified material in archives in the USA and the UK. The argument that the author propounds is that India’s policy of nonalignment in the initial years was a cover for pursuing its national interests deemed as being furthered by a nuclear program and tilting towards the West to the extent of seeking security guarantees and military hardware from these sources. The book traverses the Perkovich revealed terrain of how the Nehru-Bhabha combine covertly maneuvered India down the nuclear lane. His interviews with the key personnel of the nuclear program as Iyengar and Ramanna and strategists as K Subrahmanyam take the book through the Indira period. He is particularly interesting in his coverage of the last decade, primarily because his sources have been senior bureaucrats, military men and scientists who have been generally kept anonymous in the footnotes. He has himself been an ‘insider’ over these years, having been a member of the First NSAB that drafted the paper that today probably serves as the basis of India’s as yet unstated nuclear doctrine.

He dissects several areas that comprise the nuclear discourse revealing new nuances in each instance. These include the bureaucratic politics that has been in attendance in India’s nuclear journey, the interpersonal interactions and the personality profiles of the politicians, scientists and bureaucrats who have been in on the nuclear loop, the shortcomings of ‘minimum deterrence’ popularized by the IDSA school, the manner in which military input into decision making has been neglected over the years, the use of Special Forces to plug the subconventional space that can be exploited in a dyadic conflict and a critique of the ‘force in being’ posture. Karnad, in keeping with his reputation, writes authoritatively, articulately and with passion. The production values of the book indicate that Indian publishing industry has come of age, for there was no incidence of the printer’s devil in the 700 pages that comprise the densely argued book. The drawback of the author sometimes repeating himself in both detail and ideas can be forgiven in light of the fact that his effort was to win converts to his grand Grand Strategic vision for India.

It is this vision that is unfortunately the least compelling aspect of the book. It does appear far-fetched that India requires to acquire a nuclear strike capability against not only China, which is understandable, but also against USA. Doing so will enable India to gain a place at the high table in the author’s view. He does not adequately contest the perspective that India’s nuclear capability can only do so much for India in gaining it credibility as a global player. There are several other indices, not least of which are economic power, social cohesion, ideational and moral strength, that make for a Great Power. Over emphasizing the nuclear aspect of national power may not be appropriate given the demise of nuclear-armed Soviet Union. It is also not self-evident that doing more in the nuclear field would contribute to the national interest by further strengthening the Indian deterrent. Ability to convert the Californian coast into rubble is not necessarily the most compelling index of power. The second feature of the vision is that it takes an ahistorical view of interstate relations in concentrating only on the power dynamic. International relations theory has moved beyond realism to furnish paradigms that ought to attract attention of policy makers. In avoiding serious theoretic confrontation with the contending philosophies in the discipline of international relations, Karnad appears to have taken the easier way out. Perhaps in attracting a rigorous counter from the opposite side of the diverse membership of the ‘strategic community’ this may have dividend for those interested in strategy. As a last word, it may be said that though Karnad attributes his interest in matters military of which we are the beneficiaries to the influence of Shri Jaswant Singh and Shri KC Pant, partial credit for the same should perhaps also be given to his school, Belgaum Military School!